Good news for fans of the Japanese murder mystery or ‘court drama’ genre – Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film, The Third Murder, is hitting UK cinema screens on 23rd March.
Attorney Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) takes on the defence case of Misumi Takashi (Yakusho Koji), who has been accused of murdering, robbing and setting fire to the corpse of his former employer. Misumi has already served jail time for another double-murder 30 years ago and faces the death penalty for his crimes – yet he freely admits his guilt. But Misumi repeatedly changes his story and, as Shigemori digs deeper into Misumi’s past and his victim’s family, Shigemori’s latest case seems far from open and shut.
The Third Murder is the third Kore-eda film I’ve reviewed, so I feel like I can make some observations on his directorial style. Kore-eda favours intriguing character development over fast-paced action, which you might expect to find in other Japanese murder mysteries. We actually only visit the court room once, with the rest of the action and important conversation taking place at the detention centre or in people’s homes. The Third Murder feels very much like the study of Misumi but it is also a moral exploration of the death penalty, which still exists in Japan. Whether Misumi is the perpetrator of three murders does not feel like the main focus of the story – but whether he is the victim of circumstances and whether there are others who are just as culpable.
I’m generally a fan of Japanese murder mysteries and just so happened to see a number of them back-to-back at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme (which, incidentally, I hope has a Kore-eda film next year). One of the things that sets The Third Murder apart from other films in this very popular genre is its interest in the death penalty itself. Misumi himself is a likeable character and, apart from the shocking opening scene, its hard to picture him as a murder. Even if he is, does he necessarily deserve the death penalty? Japan still executes prisoners today and calls for it to abolish the death penalty have increased in recent years, and it feels like The Third Murder has emerged in response to those calls.
The Third Murder is a long watch, clocking in at just over two hours, which gives plenty of time for us to explore the motivations and past of not only Misumi but also his victim’s wife and daughter. No one is entirely innocent or guilty, and everyone seems to be hiding something. With mystery layered upon mystery, The Third Murder slowly builds up to its conclusion, but there are still unanswered questions – both practical and moral – left over that the viewer must answer themselves.